Tuesday, June 15, 2010
President Obama assured the nation Tuesday that that he will "make BP pay" for the environmental and economic catastrophe caused by the company's damaged deep water petroleum well that for nearly two months has been spewing untold thousands of barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico.
But using the Oval Office as a backdrop for the first time in his presidency, he also cited the disaster as the most vivid incentive yet to end what he called "America's century-long addiction to fossil fuels."
"This oil spill is the worst environmental disaster American has ever faced," the president said, in a sober and contained speech that ran for 17 minutes. "And unlike an earthquake or a hurricane, it is not a single event that does its damage in a matter of minutes of days."
"The millions of gallons of oil that have spilled into the Gulf of Mexico are more like an epidemic, one that we will be fighting for months and even years," he said. "But make no mistake. We will fight this spill with everything we've got for as long as it takes. We will make BP pay for the damage their company has caused. And we will do whatever's necessary to help the Gulf Coast and its people recover from this tragedy."
Offering some encouraging news, the president said that within weeks, given new strategies employed at the damaged site, he expects that 90 percent of the escaping oil will be captured.
But he returned to the larger issues that shadow the spill.
"The tragedy unfolding on our coast is the most painful and powerful reminder yet that the time to embrace a clean energy future is now," he said, characterizing the challenges related to developing clean energy as akin to those faced by Americans who put a man on the moon, or produced enough planes and tanks to fight World War II.
"We can't afford not to change how we produce and use energy — because the long-term costs to our economy, our national security, and our environment are far greater," he said, than the costs associated with a break from the grip of oil.
Using the language of war, Obama, in attempting to turn what had been increasingly seen as a political liability into an opportunity, said that his "battle plan" going forward includes cleaning up the oil, which, according to estimates released earlier Tuesday, is gushing into the Gulf at the rate of up to 60,000 barrels a day — more than double last week's estimates.
But he also announced a plan to embark on a long-term effort to "restore the unique beauty and bounty" of the Gulf region. That effort, he said, will be headed by Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus, a former governor of Mississippi.
Obama also laid out his intentions to inform BP officials, including board chairman Carl-Henrik Svanberg and CEO Tony Hayward, in a White House meeting Wednesday that they will be obligated to fund a multi-billion-dollar compensation account that will be used to reimburse residents of the Gulf for economic losses caused by what the president said was the company’s "recklessness."
The focus on BP came as a USA Today/Gallup poll released Tuesday found that 71 percent of those surveyed said they believed that Obama had not been tough enough on BP.
Meanwhile, the president assured Americans angry and alarmed at the unprecedented environmental disaster that efforts are under way to remake what he characterized as the corrupt and failed federal oversight of the oil industry.
Just hours before his speech, the president announced that he had picked Michael Bromwich, a former assistant U.S. attorney and Justice Department inspector general, to head the effort to revamp the federal government's Minerals Management Service, which regulates the oil industry.
But the president, who has faced stiff criticism over his leadership since BP's deep-water-drilling rig exploded off Louisiana's shores, killing 11 workers and spewing oil into Gulf waters, did not explain how he decided in the weeks before the well disaster to allow expanded offshore drilling — especially considering that, during his speech, he described the federal agency that oversees the oil industry as corrupt and riddled with cronyism.
The Minerals Management Service, he said, "has become emblematic of a failed philosophy that views all regulation with hostility ... an agency where "industry insiders were put in charge of industry oversight."
But it's unclear whether the speech and its focus on legislation, given that oil still spewed in the Gulf of Mexico and questions were left unanswered about the administration's much-criticized response to the disaster in its early weeks.
Michael Steele, chairman of the Republican National Committee, said the president was trying to use the disaster "for political gain."
Steele accused the president of "exploiting the tragedy in the Gulf to try to ram through a devastating, job-killing national energy tax," referring to the carbon charge the president favors.
Most politicos and presidential scholars say that Obama, who early in his presidency characterized offshore drilling as crucial to the nation's energy policy, had an opportunity to salvage the issue — and his political reputation — even as efforts to fully cap the well have continued to fall short, and oil has begun reaching the coastline.
Cleanup, Claims and Energy
Looking forward, Obama made a strong call for Congress to finish its work on comprehensive energy legislation. The House has already passed climate change and energy legislation; similar measures remain stalled in the Senate.
In a speech early this month at Carnegie Mellon University, Obama renewed his call for "finally putting a price on carbon pollution." It's a position that faced stiff opposition from Republicans in the Senate.
The president also said that the BP-funded compensation fund that will be administered by a third party — as yet unnamed — and that will pay out claims in a "fair and timely manner."
What is not yet clear is whether workers affected by the current six-month moratorium on new deep water drilling would be eligible for compensation through the BP fund. That issue, an administration official said during the background briefing, is being discussed on Capitol Hill and with BP, which opposes compensating those harmed by the moratorium, but there has been no resolution.
The moratorium, criticized by House Republicans as economically crippling to the region, was established by Obama after the disaster unfolded off the shores of Louisiana. The president said he understood the difficulty created by the moratorium but that it would remain in place "for the sake of [workers] safety, and for the sake of the entire region" until a deep water drilling review is complete.
Capitol Hill Showdown
On Capitol Hill earlier Tuesday, BP America chairman and CEO Lamar McKay defended his company's cleanup effort as "pretty effective," a conclusion not shared by most members of Congress who grilled him and executives from five other major oil companies during a five-hour hearing.
A live feed of the oil plume was featured in the hearing room during the oil executives' testimony.
Their unfriendly reception, prompted in part by a congressional investigation that found that BP repeatedly ignored warnings about the well's safety and integrity before the rig exploded, was peppered with calls for apologies and resignations.
The remarks included a suggestion by Louisiana Republican Rep. Anh Cao that McKay commit "hari-kari," a ritual suicide in Asian culture, and be provided a samurai sword to do it. (Sen. Chuck Grassley, an Iowa Republican, suggested the same ritual last year for AIG executives who received controversial bonuses after a taxpayer bailout.)
The executives were all criticized for their companies' safety, accident and spill response plans that Rep. Edward Markey, a Massachusetts Democrat, called similar and equally ineffective.
Some House Republicans criticized the attacks on the oil executives as "petulant, mean-spirited," in the words of Florida Republican Rep. Cliff Sttearns.
Potential For Speech
Before Obama's first Oval Office address, historians were taking the measure of what might be possible for the president.
"The first thing I hope he accomplishes Tuesday night is to make very clear to the American public the dimensions of this catastrophe — the feel, the smell, the touch of it," says Joseph Persico, a presidential historian and former speechwriter for Vice President Nelson Rockefeller.
"What I also hope is that he sends the message that we're fed up and we're not going to take it anymore," says Persico, who wants to see "less of the law professor and more of the outraged leader."
It's a criticism that has been repeatedly leveled at the characteristically contained president as the disaster has continued, and as reports emerged about BP's past safety problems, its low estimates of the leak's dimensions, and a perception that the company — not the administration — was driving the leak response.
"It was pretty obvious by Week 4 that delegating to BP was not working," says presidential historian Lara Brown, "and the administration was getting blamed." It's still difficult to believe, she adds, that president hasn't yet met with BP's CEO (Obama's face-to-face with Hayward is scheduled for Wednesday).
The White House Monday indicated that it has taken a more muscular approach with BP, announcing that the British petroleum firm would establish a multibillion-dollar fund, overseen by a third party, to pay for future economic damages caused by the oil disaster. The company is already obligated to pay cleanup costs.
That move, and others by the administration in recent days, including Obama’s two-day visit to the Gulf, suggest to Brown that the White House is finally in tune with the expectations of the American public.
"When something like this happens, Americans say to themselves, 'if I were president, this is what I would do,'" says Brown, a Villanova University professor. "Most of it is about rolling up your sleeves and digging into the problem while marshaling as much command and control of the government as a president can."
Oval Office Message
The president, in choosing the Oval Office as a setting for his televised speech, has given the oil spill the imprimatur of a serious crisis.
Presidents in the past have used the setting to, for example, announce war, respond to national tragedies like the attacks of Sept. 11, and, in the case of Richard Nixon, to resign.
Political scientist Mary Stuckey of Georgia State University saw it as "a good time for an Oval Office speech," adding: "The oil hasn't fully hit yet, and the criticism of him — while growing — is not really loud yet."
But Fred Greenstein, Princeton University professor emeritus of politics and author of The Presidential Difference: Leadership Style from FDR to Barack Obama, says that "we probably overestimate the extent to which a president's rhetoric and manner of presentation makes a difference."
The White House clearly has decided that the president needed to double down on that manner of presentation and to, as Persico says, "get in that bully pulpit, use it and take the opportunity to turn adversity to advantage."
Whether a speech that was heavy on promoting legislation and short on overt empathy and specifics will do that remains to be seen.